I have been loath to write more about the situation in my cyclone-ravaged coastal community, but since we are going on a month since Gabrielle hit and things are not quite optimal, I thought I would offer this brief status report.
Basically, we are largely trapped in place between two dangerous roads. Supplies, food and fuel are being ferried to us and rubbish taken out by helicopter thanks to Auckland Emergency Management (AEM). We have power and cell phone coverage thanks to the lines company. But when it comes to fixing the roads–admittedly a major undertaking– Auckland Transport has basically been indifferent to our plight. Their very poor communications with the community essentially are that a) they will take 3-4 weeks to complete a feasibility study on how to repair the slips; and b) it will be over a year before normal road use can be restored. Meanwhile a posse of local builders have worked tirelessly, using their own tools and money, to shore up the slide areas and place plastic rain seal covers on slips so as to prevent further erosion and falls. But the roads are an unsafe mess and barely passable as things stand today.
AT actively discourages this private party work and hints at liability for those who do it. It has also officially closed the two roads to all but emergency and essential travel, thereby voiding vehicle insurance for non-emergency/essential workers who attempt to transit them at their own risk. This is a major quandary because there are around 50 school children in the valley who need to reach school buses on the main arterial road above the slips, a primary school in the valley that requires some parents to drive kids in between and around the slips, people who have medical and other important or time-sensitive appointments that cannot be delayed, and people who need to work but cannot work from home so must try to commute as if things were normal.
They are not.
AT does not appear to understand any of this and one gets the sense that the bosses safely ensconced in their Auckland offices have decided that we are low priority or the remedies too hard to be dealt with urgently. We get placating words on video conference calls but no practicable follow up. More broadly, employers and the public in Auckland do not appear to fully comprehend what is going out here. People are being told to come back to work soon or suffer the consequences. Day-trippers and tourists drive out blissfully unaware that the entire region is closed to non-residents because the roads simply cannot cope with the weight of traffic.
When it comes to AT and the contractors and other authorities it is using to “assess” our roads, one hand does not appear to know what the other is doing. AT says that the upper road is “hard” closed because of the underslips beneath the remaining road surfaces, but local civil defence authorities say that is because of boulders perched precariously over the road above some of the slips. Meanwhile people sneak in an out across the slip zones because there is no enforcement of the “hard” closure.
It gets worse. A few days back I followed local civil defence instructions and attempted to exit the valley on the hour as instructed, with people presumably manning stop/go signs on both ends of the most dangerous stretch (and sole one lane exit). When I got to that stretch I saw no signs of any sort but was committed to the task because at that point there was no way to turn around. Two thirds of the way up this infamous stretch of road (known as “The Cutting” because of its steep incline and sheer drops (where people have died in the past)), I came around a corner hugging the uphill bank only to find a dump truck and a digger blocking my way. I had no room to turn around and no visibility behind me. Workers milled around while the digger scraped dirt from the bank and dumped it in the truck.
After a while and getting zero response from said workers, who seemed to think that our appearance in the middle of their work zone was part of the scenery, my wife walked over and spoke with them, eventually finding a supervisor. Not only did that fellow not know about the “exit on the hour” rule but he did not know about the local primary school or the school bus runs that happened twice a day as parents try to get to drop-off and pick-up points on the arterial road. He was under the assumption that the road was closed, which it probably should be but it is the only one that is viable (in the loosest sense of the word) given that the other road has been completely closed due to the danger posed by overhanging boulders and undercuts beneath the roadway–dangers that AT has no plan to fix at this point because the feasibility studies have not been completed. Mind you, much of the damage caused by slides was the direct result of AT neglecting to clear culverts and drains throughout the catchment for twenty years in spite of many requests logged to send crews out to do this basic maintenance.
It is not just AT that has once again failed in its obligations. Some politicians are part of the problem as well. Although local council members appear happy to entertain the idea, our local MP dismissed the suggestion that we ask the NZDF if military engineers can come out and have a look at the road damage in order to make repair recommendations and/or install a Bailey Bridge (which is a modular construction that can support the weight of tanks) over the worst slip on the upper road that has less of an incline than the Cutting. That is a pity because the request has to come from the central government, not local councils. Apparently without consulting the NZDF or the Minister of Defence, the MP said that the Army is too busy in the Hawks Bay to help us even though the NZDF does disaster relief/humanitarian assistance and lots of military engineering as a matter of course, and has not exhausted those resources with its efforts on the other side of the North Island. It would have been nice gesture to her constituents if she had at least paid lip service to the request or passed it on to a Minister who could do so in her stead.
Meanwhile, Auckland Council has ordered the closure of the Waitakere ranges and West Coast beaches to non-residents, setting up roadblocks on the main arterial road connecting our communities with the western suburbs. We have to show proof of residence in order to get through the cordons, day in and day out. Even relatives cannot come to visit. Yet at the same time temporary accomodation providers are attempting to circumvent the process, with tourists showing up with no knowledge that they are entering a disaster zone with treacherous roads. Some of these temporary accomodation providers have declined to open their rentals to neighbours who lost their homes or were otherwise displaced by the storm. As the saying goes, crises bring out the best and worst in people.
On top of all this, AT is hinting at permanent road closures and AEM is gently suggesting that residents consider the possibility of having to relocate outside the valley. Needless to say, the idea of selling out and buying elsewhere (even if a sale were possible and a similar property was available) or trying to find rental accomodation in Auckland’s housing market, taking kids out their local schools and placing them elsewhere, paying ongoing bills for the abandoned properties while paying rent and bills on temporary accomodation is not a happy prospect to have to deal with.
As a result, anxiety, stress and in some cases despair have taken root in the community. For every resilient person and the local heroes who work to clear the roads, staff the emergency community hub and unload the choppers, there are others who are suffering a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Tempers are frayed and quarrels have emerged between those who ignore the road closures and risk the travel in and out, those who obey the rules but cannot return to a normal routine, and those who are part of the essential/emergency services network (such as members of the fire party and first response) who use the privilege of their association to do as they please even when not on call-outs. That creates a “have, have not” situation that breeds resentment between factions. Anarchy is slowly raising its head in the stillness of the post-storm bush. The bottom line is that the social fabric of my isolated community is starting to fray and worse yet, I fear that someone is going to get killed on the roads while AT dithers about its response.
Here is the irony. Kiwis make a big deal about being part of the “First World” and regularly deride “Third World” banana republics. Perhaps in our politics, diplomacy and material life most of NZ is indeed an advanced liberal democracy. But when it comes to infrastructure maintenance (preventative, regular and events-reactive) and local emergency crisis response, we are very far from that. We are in a form of official response limbo but here is the rub: in Third World countries people just get to the task of rebuilding. They do not bother with bureaucratic red tape, feasibility studies, securing resource consents and pulling proper permits from officials wearing hard hats, lanyards and high viz vests while they study clipboards. In the Third World people just get on with the job of restoring normalcy.
In greater Auckland we get third world infrastructure overseen (and overlooked) by a first world bureaucracy that is big on code compliance but slow on delivering rapid solutions to desperate situations. Which means that for me and others in my community, when it comes to post-Gabrielle disaster response, we have the worst of both worlds.